Animal Tracks and Signs

Bohemian Waxwing The last weekend of February was a beautiful one for going out and looking for those last few species to add to my winter list.  Although both Saturday and Sunday morning started out cloudy, the sun came out each day not long after I headed out.  The temperature was decent, too, with the highs in the -7°C range.

On Saturday I drove out to the Richmond Nursery to look for seeds to start my spring garden.  Since I had some time to kill before the nursery opened, I decided to spend some time at the Richmond Lagoons and driving the back roads around Richmond.

At the lagoons I heard a nuthatch calling near the parking lot and a cardinal singing from the depths of the woods.  A large vehicle had flattened all of the vegetation on the dyke around the first cell and most of the second, so I took a walk around the cells – something I rarely do in the summer and fall when the vegetation gets to be waist high. The only birds I saw were crows, chickadees, and a flock of small songbirds (Finches? Snow buntings?) flying over.  I was more intrigued by the plentiful evidence of mammals around.  Most of the large trees along the edge of the second lagoon showed signs of recent beaver damage.  Oddly, few trees had been gnawed all the way through, and those that were had been left in place. I looked around for signs of a beaver lodge but found nothing, so perhaps the beaver is denned up inside a burrow carved out of the dyke.

Under Construction!

I made a note to return after the spring thaw to try and catch a glimpse of this industrious and highly ambitious mammal.

Caution: Beaver at work

A few small rodent tracks caught my attention, as did several sets of canine tracks.  However, as I had also seen people prints near the entrance to the lagoons, I thought perhaps someone had brought their dog in for a walk.  It wasn’t until I had circumnavigated the second cell and came to a large snow bank left by same the plow which had presumably flattened the trails atop the dyke that I realized the canine prints continued beyond this barrier and that the only footprints present in the area were my own.  I took this photo of my prints next to the unknown mammal’s for size comparison.  My boots are a size 6, relatively small in size.  I am not sure whether the tracks belong to a fox or coyote or domestic dog, for that matter; none of my photos show a clear enough print for me to identify the culprit.

Canine prints

Beyond the snow bank I found a couple of spots where the animal had been digging.  One of the holes went all the way down to the grass.  This suggests to me that the mammal was not a domestic dog, but rather a fox or coyote trying to get at a small rodent moving beneath the snow.

Evidence of a large canine digging

After leaving the Richmond Lagoons I drove further south.  Here I came across what I suspected would be the final two species for my winter list: a Northern Shrike perched atop a tree overlooking a field and a small flock of Pine Siskins, seen only briefly and identified chiefly by their distinctive calls.

The following day Deb and I met up for an exploration of the west end.  The Bill Mason Center was the first stop in our itinerary; raptors, winter finches, Ruffed Grouse and Snowshoe Hares were possible, and I expected there would be fewer people around than at most other conservation areas closer to the city.

Bill Mason gazebo

There seemed to be no life whatsoever in the marsh or the woods, both of which were lovely with the recent dusting of snow.

Bill Mason trail

Just as we were lamenting the lack of birds, a Ruffed Grouse suddenly flew out from beneath a tree right next to the path.  It flew low into the woods, disappearing among the conifers.  I decided to look for its tracks beneath the trees, and found several where it had been sitting.

Ruffed Grouse tracks

Upon closer examination, we discovered a multitude of tracks crisscrossing the path ahead of us and wandering around the woods.  If only we had come across the tracks first we might have thought to look for the grouse and actually found it before it took off!

Ruffed Grouse tracks

As we completed our circuit of the woods we came across more grouse tracks, squirrel tracks, small rodent (either mouse or vole) tracks, many Snowshoe Hare tracks, and several other tracks we weren’t able to identify.  Interestingly, there were no fresh deer tracks.  With so many animals living in and roaming around the forest searching for food it was a wonder we didn’t see more creatures on our walk.  I was really hoping to come across a Snowshoe Hare, a species I have seen often at the Bill Mason Center in the warmer months.

Snowshoe Hare tracks

We finally found some life near the back of the trail when a couple of chickadees flew out of the woods to greet us.  They weren’t as tame as the Stony Swamp chickadees, but knew enough to identify us as a potential source of food.  Only one or two flew into my hand to take the sunflower seeds I had brought along; the rest preferred to snatch them from the ground.

We heard one or two nuthatches as well, although they kept well out of sight.  Further along the trail we came across a male Hairy Woodpecker excavating a stump for insect eggs and/or larvae.  The best bird, however, other than the grouse, was a Northern Shrike which flew in and landed on a tree just as we were crossing the boardwalk.  Like most shrikes, he didn’t want to come anywhere near us, so we had to be content trying to photograph him from the boardwalk.

Northern Shrike

Next we drove over to the Nortel woods to see if the Barred Owl was still around.  He wasn’t, but we were thrilled to come across a flock of about 15-20 Bohemian Waxwings devouring what was left of the Buckthorn berries.  This was a new species for my month list, and Deb and I spent several minutes watching them and listening to their high-pitched calls.

Bohemian Waxwing

Bohemian Waxwing

Our last stop of the day was Mud Lake.  A dozen ducks milling about the entrance to the woods included two American Black Ducks and one mallard-black duck hybrid.  They were looking for handouts, and I obliged them by throwing them almost all of my seeds.  A couple of Brown Creepers, White-breasted Nuthatches, and a Pileated Woodpecker calling from somewhere near the path were the only other species we found in the woods.

We visited the Ridge next to check out the buckthorn shrubs and the river.  A distant male Common Merganser in the channel was a good find for my February list, as they had been absent from the Hurdman area since the freeze-up early in the month.  We also saw a large flock of waxwings fly out from the shrubs along the river and disappear over the lake.  I suspect most were Bohemian Waxwings, but as a few robins and a Cedar Waxwing had been seen with the Bohemians recently I couldn’t be sure.  I was disappointed that we had arrived too late to watch them feed, as I needed Cedar Waxwing for both my winter list and my year list.

Still, it was a good outing with the Ruffed Grouse and the Northern Shrike being the best birds of the day.  Mammals were scarce, although we did see a canine species dart out onto Carling Avenue near the conservation area parking lot.  I was too far away to get a good look at it, although I slowed down so Deb could look through her binoculars.  She said it was either a dog or a coyote, but wasn’t sure.  It ran out onto the road, hesitated, started to go across, then turned back and disappeared into the woods.  There was no sign of it as we drove by, and it didn’t occur to me at the time to stop and look for its tracks.

I finished February with 41 species seen in the Ottawa area, four more than my 2009 February list and five more than my February 2010 list if you exclude the species I saw at Amherst Island (2009) and Algonquin Park (2010).  March should bring the return of many new species, and I can’t wait for it to begin!

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